from my blog at http://marginalaccretion.com/
I crawl as stealthily as possible into the hallway, stop and wait. My parents have settled into their bed. Earlier, I dropped from mine to the floor soon after a ritual of saying goodnight to everyone and remaining there until I could no longer wait. I inch into my parents’ room, as quiet as a small child can be. Gradually, after an amount of time that seems stationary to me, I make myself known. I am welcomed, snug under the blankets, my two year old body safe with my dad on one side and my mom on the other.
The memory that remains is not really of my parents, however. Or of the comfort and security of their bed. I more strongly recall staring up towards the ceiling and taking in the darkness, ostensibly filling my eyes. Just when I thought it could not be any darker than it was, it deepened. My mind was tantalized by the mystery of its depths, not the kind of mystery that called to me to be solved, but one that seemed to beckon for my entrance into it. As I lay there in the dark moving into its depths, gradually the darkness evolved into the colors of my dreams.
These days if I lay in the dark and attempt to repeat the experience, even though I have the “clear” memory of the nearly impenetrable darkness in my parents’ room, I notice something else happening. My eyes are gradually closing, opening a little, closing again. Darkness does have depths. but sometimes maybe it is a matter of perception.
There are whole wars that have been fought, at least in the halls of academia, over the construct of light versus darkness, the former preferred and the latter marginalized. I seem to remember that Chinua Achebe, for one, took issue with the novel upon which Apocalypse Now was based, a book by Joseph Conrad, titled, Heart of Darkness. He saw in it an implied racism, the dark skin of deep Africa and savagery dwelling in unregulated human hearts. Such deep darkness, we find, is enough to drive a man (or woman) mad.
In the field of science, of course, darkness is not anything, while light is something that travels and seems to be characterized by both waves and particles. As far as I know (and I am not a physicist by any stretch of the imagination) no one has ever discovered a particle or wave that makes the world dark. In practical terms, darkness is merely the result of blocking out light. An eclipse happens when the moon gets between the earth and the sun. Night happens when the part of the earth that we are on faces away from the sun. Light reaches the eye and triggers signals in both eye and brain, which results in the phenomenon of sight. There are no dark signals that reach the nervous system or trigger neurons to fire in the brain. Even black holes are not made of darkness but of matter that is so dense that light cannot escape to reflect their existence back to our eyes and brains. Gravity keeps the light constrained.
There is apparently something called “dark matter” and “dark energy,” too, but as yet these are shrouded heavily in mystery, and they are certainly not an empirical antithesis to light as we know it.
Joseph Conrad’s equation of an amoral tendency in one who is given over to evil with darkness is understandable. It’s a common thread in both western and eastern cultures.The next step, of course, which is to equate darker skin with an affinity for a lack of virtue, is not.
But we have a heritage in which light, consciousness, and that which is known and which we know we know is preferred over the unknown. What we do not know scares us.
Consciousness of what I do not know is blocked out not only by my nature as a finite being, but by fear. After all, curiosity killed the cat, and the whole world of the unknown, which is much larger than what I know, seems somehow also related to the impenetrable realm of death. And some of us think we know and at least suspect that death abides in a darkness as deep and dense as a black hole, from which the lights of human souls never return.
“Hello darkness, my old friend,” sings Simon and Garfunkel, played on a turntable as I inspect the album cover, which belongs to my dad. Both guys, Paul and Art, are apparently walking along a dirt road and looking back at the photographer as if she has just called out to them in order to catch a candid snapshot. The lyric is from the song, The Sound of Silence. Here is the visual conflated with the audible. There are similarities, although sound waves are pretty much regarded as waves only and not particles, and are much slower than the speed of light.
If what I do not know frightens me, what I know but do not realize I know or do not want to know scares me even more. When a vibrating wave of sound moves through the particles of space between its origin and an ear, signals again fire in the nervous system in order for the brain to interpret and communicate the noise.
Hence comes the unfortunate question about whether or not a tree falling in a forest where no one is around to hear makes a sound. It’s not a trick question, though most people take it as such. It’s a matter of definition. A sound might be holistically understood as both the origin of the vibration, the wave it creates, the particles of the media through which it passes, the vibration it causes when the wave hits the tympanic membrane in the ear, and the neurons that fire in the brain in order to receive and interpret it. A tree falling always makes a sound wave, but hypothetically may not always make a sound since there might not be any receptive nervous system in the vicinity to hear it.
However, sounds can be heard that do not originate from vibrations. On the other side of the question is this idea that consciousness is an active participant in the creation of sound. It can receive vibrating waves and understand them as warning signals, the communication of abstract and mundane ideas (“What is the meaning of life,” or “Hand me that apple, please”) or symphonies eliciting numinous conceptions of that which transcends the sensory apparatus that elicits them, i.e., the apprehension of beauty. Consciousness may be informed by but does not seem to be dependent upon the senses, which is why we can think and imagine, as well as make predictions with hope and fear.
If there are unknown things we do not want to know, then the sounds of silence are a danger. If I am left with myself with nothing to stimulate or entertain me, will I really greet the silence of my own soul as an “old friend”? Perhaps it is the same fear of the unknown that motivates me to fill my life with noise, or for some people to always have a television on whether they are watching or not, or for others to surgically attach a smart phone to their hand so that they are always connected with a potential distraction, should the pace of the day ever slow down or the threat of “boredom” intervene.
Silence, I would guess, is the first step into the depths of darkness — not Conrad’s heart of darkness where one becomes a “savage” that behaves more cruelly than any beast might — but the mystery of what is not known. It is not a mystery to be solved, necessarily; but, perhaps, there are mysteries in the darkness that call to me, mysteries into which I might enter that are there to be lived.